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GlobCarbon and the Global Carbon Cycle
Jamais Cascio, 31 Jan 06

globcarbon.jpgWe know that we're adding millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year, with demonstrably negative results for the global climate. But precisely how the planetary ecosystem reacts to this additional carbon is dependent upon the details of the global carbon cycle -- the ongoing transfer of carbon between the Earth's atmosphere, ocean, ground and biosphere. GlobCarbon, a European Space Agency effort to chart a decade's worth of data on changes to global plant life, will provide critical data to emerging carbon cycle models, making it possible to predict with much greater accuracy the ecosystem effects of the rapid increase in atmospheric carbon. GlobCarbon is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2007, but the first six year's worth of data have now been made available to researchers.

GlobCarbon relies on a variety of ESA satellites for long-term observations, and the project has accumulated 45 terabytes of input data so far:

[GlobCarbon] is focused on the generation of various global estimates of aspects of terrestrial vegetation: the number, location and area of fire-affected land, known as Burnt Area Estimates (BAE), the area of green leaf exposed to incoming sunlight for photosynthesis, known as Leaf Area Index (LAI), the sunlight actually absorbed for photosynthesis, known as the Fraction of Absorbed Photosynthetically Active Radiation (fAPAR) and the Vegetation Growth Cycle (VGC).
...Human activities have led the [carbon] cycle to move out of balance, as fossil fuel burning and land clearances lead to increased atmospheric carbon levels driving global warming. This development may also have knock-on effects on the carbon cycle itself, in the uncertain responses of oceanic phytoplankton and land vegetation respond to rising temperatures.
Researchers have developed complex software models of carbon cycle processes to try and predict future changes, providing vital input for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and related groups assessing the potential impact of climate change. However any model is only as good as input data, and relevant data is lacking for certain aspects of the carbon cycle – especially land vegetation.

Chief among the research groups using the data is the international Global Carbon Project, comprising researchers from China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Mexico, the United States and Europe. The GCP seeks to understand not just the physical aspects of the carbon cycle, but the human dimension as well -- how our social policies, economies and technologies affect the overall process.

The Global Carbon Project research pages are a treasure-trove of recent proposals, working papers and presentations on a wide array of carbon-related science, including carbon stabilization concepts, the effects of releasing frozen carbon stores (PDF) and urban carbon management (PPT). One research document from late last year, "Can Cities Reduce Global Warming?" (PDF), looks at the interaction between urbanization and carbon management in Latin America. Research into the global warming mitigation prospects of cities is a relatively recent development, and it's particularly pleasing to see the concept applied outside of the more typical US and European settings.

The GlobCarbon project, when it finishes up in 2007, could be a critical step forward in our understanding of how the carbon cycle is changing as a result of global warming -- and how those changes will, in turn, affect our ability to slow and, in time, reverse the worst of anthropogenic climate change.

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Stuart Staniford of TheOilDrum has just started a series of posts on the carbon cycle and the global economy:

While I'm here, let me point out my "wish" for a wiki in which readers from TheOilDrum, RealClimate, and WorldChanging work together to brainstorm an agenda parallel to that of the new "alternative to Kyoto", the AP6:

Posted by: mitchell porter on 1 Feb 06



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